Juno McDuff, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of Juno, the 2007 film that took the Oscar for best original screenplay, enters the movie's final act with uncertainty in her mind: “I just wonder if two people can stay together for good.… I need to know that it’s possible.” The prospects seem dubious at the time. Her part-time lover and full-time friend Paulie Bleeker may have finally moved on. The young married couple she had grown to admire—especially Mark, the husband—is on the brink of a divorce, on Mark’s sudden decision.
These commonplace teenage dilemmas are amplified by a simple yet powerful fact: Juno is pregnant. Paulie, also a high schooler, is the father. Mark and his wife Vanessa were supposed to adopt Juno’s child, but those plans, along with the plausibility of long-lasting love, are now up in the air.
Juno earned near-universal acclaim when it was released fifteen years ago this fall. It was praised by critics and audiences alike, winning accolades throughout the film festival circuit. More impressive given its subject matter (after briefly considering an abortion, Juno eventually chooses adoption instead), the film was well received by pro-choice and pro-life writers alike.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Flash forward fifteen years and a lot has changed. Teen pregnancy’s decline has given way to concerns about perpetual adolescence. The movie’s Oscar-winning screenwriter has said she wouldn’t write the film now, both because of the proliferation of state-level abortion restrictions and because of the positive pro-life response to the film. And the recent Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, which altered the constitutionality of abortion, will undoubtedly affect how and how much we talk about unplanned pregnancies going forward.
Rewatching Juno today lays bare these cultural shifts, exposing both our heighted polarization and increased alienation. But the movie also offers a helpful disposition toward these dysfunctions by approaching conflict through the lens of comedy.
The word “comedy” brings to mind particular qualities: amusement, provocation, and especially laughter. To be sure, Juno is funny, most of all through its wise-cracking protagonist, played by Elliot—then Ellen—Page. Describing her classical namesake, Juno quips,
My dad went through this huge obsession with Roman and Greek mythology, so he decided to name me after Zeus’s wife. And, like, Zeus had tons of lays, but I'm pretty sure Juno was his only wife. And she was supposed to be really beautiful, but really mean. Like Diana Ross.
Comedy as a genre, however, has more fundamental goals than mere laughter. Comedy acknowledges both how easy it is for societies to fracture and how much we wish for them to reconcile. It imagines ways in which we can mend our divisions, whether over political conflicts, generational divides, or even just the stubbornness of finite hearts. It’s not coincidental that the plots of comedies up and down the ages—from plays, to novels, to films—are often resolved at a grand communal event: a banquet, a dance, a wedding.
At the same time, this insistence on reconciliation exposes the main criticism of comedy—that it’s all wishful thinking. Comedy can flatten characters, indulge in plot conveniences, and refuse to recognize the irresolvability of some disputes. But Juno hangs on to the genre’s tendency toward reconciliation without indulging its worst impulses. It has a good read on the sources of our divisions, and on how a comedic attitude might just make things better.
Take the film's main love interest between Juno and Paulie (played by Michael Cera). In a traditional comedy, a domineering father, a jealous stepmother, or another stuffy external force would try to block their love. Juno’s main obstacle, however, is internal. She doesn’t have to convince her father or stepmother (warmly played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) that she loves Paulie. She has to convince herself that her love is worth declaring. This isn’t groundbreaking; comedies from Pride and Prejudice to When Harry Met Sally show that the biggest obstacle in our love lives is often our own equivocation. Still, it was a relevant lesson in 2007, and is even more so in our own era of sex recessions and failures to launch.
Or take Juno’s relationship with Mark and Vanessa. When we meet the prospective parents, Mark (Jason Bateman) is hip and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is square. He plays a Les Paul guitar and watches Herschell Gordon Lewis horror flicks; she stresses over whether to paint her kid’s bedroom “custard” or “cheesecake” (hint: they’re both yellow). But when Mark considers leaving his wife to unpause his music career, it’s not her type-A attitude that the movie shuns, but rather his disregard for commitment and fatherhood. Juno doesn’t acquiesce to an undiscriminating wish fulfillment in which everyone gets what he or she really wants. Instead, it rewards social cohesion; not “to thine own self be true,” but “no man is an island”—a lesson worth stressing in our polarized times, when litmus tests and ideological rigidity are often prioritized over bridge-building.
Fifteen years after its release, Juno maintains its nuance, coming off as neither preachy nor nonchalant about its main character’s circumstances. It doesn’t romanticize parenthood, but it also doesn’t recoil from it, either. It doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy, but it also doesn’t treat it as a sure sign of failure. It doesn’t shy away from the culture wars—from sex to marriage to abortion—but also doesn’t let them overshadow its comedic commitments.
As a comedy, Juno isn’t interested in tribal didacticism. It’s sensitive to our particular social dysfunctions, but also wagers that our fundamental sociality, our desire to belong, can overcome the fractures created by them.
We need similar models of reconciliation today. Our isolation from and antagonism toward one another make it easy to forget that a part of us will always want a comedic resolution, whether for ourselves, for our polarized society, or for the witty, idiosyncratic, and resilient teen wondering “if two people can stay together for good.” This is the key insight of comedy, and one that Juno delivers with confidence and grace.
Luis Parrales is a research associate in Washington, D.C., and a student in the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College in Annapolis.
Image: Elliot Page in Juno. (IMDB)
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